Brooklyn singer-songwriter Miles Benjamin Anthony Robinson made a subtle ripple in 2008 when he released his self-titled debut, a haunting indie folk gem with a few guest credits from members of Grizzly Bear. Yet shortly before the quadruple monikered performer introduced himself to the country via song (although he self-released the album a few years prior), he was a bit of a wreck. Depressed and on drugs, he was a heartbroken and fragile figure, spending the summer of 2007 in an unenviable state. Since then, however, Robinson has dusted himself off and used his anguished experience as fuel for his ambitious second album, aptly titled Summer of Fear.
Summer of Fear is a sprawling work more than two years in the making, and a document of how pain can not only produce inspiration for great art, but copious amounts of it as well. The album spans a hulking 64 minutes across 12 tracks, building plentifully on the promise of his first album with an album that’s certainly epic, frequently beautiful and in parts quite powerful. Lyrically, there’s not a lot of hope or optimism to speak of, though when he wails lines like “Why would I want to hang on to anyone else?“, it almost doubles as a rallying cry, which is thanks in large part to the pacing and the drama of his arrangements, not to mention the massive production work from TV on the Radio’s Kyp Malone. Granted, not all of his lyrics are pure gold, and clunkers abound (“Honey, it’s a hard row/ And it’s one that you have to hoe“), but the strength of his melodies largely renders these missteps forgivable.
Like fellow Saddle Creek alumnus Conor Oberst, only with more Tom Petty influence and less Dylan, Robinson fuels his tales of heartbreak and redemption through gorgeous, uplifting Americana arrangements. His mumbly baritone provides a warm and friendly introduction for the listener on leadoff track “Shake a Shot,” a pretty if melancholy indie folk strummer with some gorgeous lap steel and Rhodes accompaniment. The gospel organ and strings in “Always an Anchor” give way to a gigantic, E Street Band-style arrangement (with less sax) that comes off a bit like a softer, less mythological Hold Steady. He pulls a similar trick in “The Sound,” though even more pleasing is the Fleetwood Mac meets Tom Petty jangler “Trap Door.” “Summer of Fear p.1” is a stunning and bouncy alt-country rocker full of rust and grit, while “Death by Dust” strikes a commanding tone with its mighty piano hooks.
There’s also “More Than a Mess,” which is 11 minutes long, and then some. And just like Conor Oberst, it presents a moment where an editor could have come in handy. Long, a little too slow to build and distracting from the album’s momentum, not to mention Robinson’s weird, spoken-word rambling throughout, it’s an intensely awkward beast to be thrown into the sequence. There’s such a wealth of material on Summer of Fear, and most of it quite good, that packing it a little too full works somewhat to its detriment. Ideal though a 9 or 10 track album might be, this imperfect, lengthy recording is a compelling work that’s occasionally frustrating but truly impressive when the pieces fall into place.
Tom Petty – Full Moon Fever
Bright Eyes – Lifted, or the Story is in the Soil Keep Your Ear to the Ground
Vetiver – Tight Knit
MP3: “The Sound”
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.